After phone cigarette

Barbara’s Manhattan apartment

Room with a view

Candy-colored mise-en-scene

Barbara’s nighttime view

Catcher’s bachelor pad

Catcher’s view (and a cold shower)

Matching hat and glove ensembles

Vintage-inspired consumption

Fly me to the moon.

Peter bartends the beatnik party.

Stylish “retro-sexism”

Stepford Singletons?

Mad magazine parody

Smuggling book in a bread loaf


Down with Love is a shining example of what Fredric Jameson labels “the nostalgia film.” Jameson defines this type of film as an approach to a stereotypical past through stylistic connotation and the attributes of fashion; this approach colors the spectator’s view of both past and present. As he contends,

“This approach to the present by the way of the art language of the simulacrum, or of the pastiche of the stereotypical past, endows present reality and the openness of present history with the spell and distance of a glossy mirage” (21).
[open bibliography in new window]

The word “mirage” is especially suited to Down with Love, because the film provides a view of the early sixties that is kitschy, vibrant, and attractive; yet, since it is based upon the Hollywood version of that time period, it represents an illusory past, a glittering surface. This representation is deliberate. As director Peyton Reed explains:

"What I like about [the film], and what I hope other people will like about it, is that there is no attempt to make the movie look realistic or to make it gritty…All the apartments and the wardrobes do not have that lived-in look. No wear-and-tear. No wrinkles. Our movie is the idea of New York City as seen through the lens of a 1960’s Hollywood movie camera" (Lyman).

Reed’s form of stylistic imitation approaches the past through “stylistic connotation, conveying ‘pastness’ by the glossy qualities of the image” and the film’s ‘1960s-ness’ “by the attributes of fashion” (Jameson 19). Indeed, Down with Love’s most pleasurable moments are nostalgic interludes of fashion and stylistic excess, in which the mise-en-scène of the film dazzles, whetting the appetite for vintage-inspired consumption. The film style makes the traditional “hat and gloves” femininity associated with the time period not only palatable, but positively desirable. For instance, when Barbara first encounters her Manhattan apartment, outfitted by her editor, Vicky, her gasp of awe is more than appropriate. The camera pulls back to reveal a living area of modernist beauty. The Eero Saarinen womb chairs, nestled in the sunken living room and flanking an open fire, are upholstered in a fabric that matches Barbara’s pink suit. A sheer pink curtain slowly opens to reveal a wall of windows framing the Manhattan skyline, leading to a balcony with white leather lounge chairs perfect for sunning and stargazing. Undoubtedly, this is a setting of fantasy, as the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building and the Statue of Liberty are visible outside (White). Likewise, the sheer size of her apartment is enough to make one gasp with pleasure.

One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when Barbara and Vicky arrive at the Mahogany Room to meet Catcher for an interview about Barbara’s book. Unbeknownst to the two women, Catcher, and a British flight attendant named Gwendolyn, have just strolled out for an afternoon rendezvous. Nevertheless, Barbara and Vicky’s arrival turns heads, as they stop at the entrance, pose, and then fling their yellow and hounds-tooth coats open to reveal contrasting linings and dresses to match. This moment is framed as spectacle: the music and the other characters pause as the two women display their clothing. They perform runway turns as they take off their coats and pose in their chic little dresses. Then, they walk to their table, rhythmically swaying their hips to an invisible lounge beat as they remove their matching gloves. In fact, whenever Barbara and Vicky are onscreen, their costumes are masterpieces of color and detail, from Vicky’s soft green suit and matching hat, to Barbara’s black lace merry-widow, flowing salmon dressing gown, and pale pink maribou-edged mules. Yet the film’s representation of period mise-en-scène and its battle-of-the-sexes narrative lack the critical edge necessary for the film to embody satirical pastiche or parody. The film’s mimicry reveals a blind revelry of style. Indeed, the visual pleasures of vintage costuming and set design are pleasures that

“merely affirm the dominant order and preempt even the possibility of resistance as the subject goes laughing into the shopping mall” (Robertson 16).

Unfortunately, Stephanie Zacharek is right about the film’s deceptiveness in her Salon.com review; the spectacular costuming and set designs of Down with Love are trying to cover-up something old and stale in their pleasurable excess — the knowing utilization of feminine signifiers in order to “catch” a man. For the great revelation, disclosed as Barbara and Zip/Catcher are about to finally consummate their relationship, is that Barbara is aware of Catcher’s masquerade as a naïve astronaut. In fact, she has schemed and plotted every detail of their interaction, writing a book in order to garner his respect and interest. Barbara’s real name is Nancy Brown, one of Catcher’s former secretaries, who fell madly in love with him the year before, and vowed to get him by any means possible. All of Down with Love’s ironic posing and winking knowingness cannot hide its links to the pre-feminist philosophies of Helen Gurley Brown or the post-feminist embracing of her ideals.           

Helen Gurley Brown’s smash bestseller, 1962’s Sex and the Single Girl, provided strategies for the modern single career girl, eventually the Cosmo Girl, to rise above her circumstances through the tools of feminine transformation and sexual guile. Throughout the sixties and on through the next few decades, Brown celebrated an exaggerated femininity that hinged upon the power to remake oneself. As Laurie Ouellette outlines in her exploration of Brown’s letters, currently held at Smith College:

"Brown’s credo required an understanding of identity as something that could always be reworked, improved upon and even dramatically changed. Sex and the Single Girl promised every girl the chance to acquire a stylish and attractive aura by copying fashion models and wealthy women" (366).

Helen Gurley Brown’s strategies emphasized phoniness and trickery in order to create an “illusion of beauty.” This manipulation of one’s outward appearance is replicated perfectly in Down with Love. Barbara Novak’s bestselling treatise on female advancement in the workplace and in the bedroom, Down with Love is really just an elaborate ruse performed by Novak. In order to win Catch’s respect and admiration, she decides to become “like him,” ruthlessly tearing through men and having sex “a la carte.” She transforms herself into a financially successful, sexually aware, bestselling blonde novelist, not in a quest for social and economic equality, but in order to achieve marriage. Significantly, she is only able to garner Catcher’s interest once she becomes a stylish, sophisticated blonde.

Barbara’s tactics are in line with Gurley Brown’s tenets, for

“To ‘get into the position to sink a man’ it was not necessary that a woman be beautiful, but she had to know how to create ‘an illusion of beauty.’ Phoniness was often celebrated as a form of trickery — a way to create a prettier, sexier, and more desirable self beyond one’s allotted means” (Ouellette 366).

Down with Love celebrates the power of beauty (or its illusion) to capture male attention and help women climb the corporate ladder. Nevertheless, that climb becomes less steep when sex becomes a tool used to achieve goals. Like Gurley Brown, for Barbara, sexual activity is framed “in terms of work and achievement.” As Gurley Brown explained to an interviewer,

“Sex is a powerful weapon for a single woman in getting what she wants from life” (Ouellette 373).

Barbara’s entire philosophy hinges on the ubiquitous “self-help” makeover so much a part of women’s magazine culture. Her book never provides concrete political solutions for obtaining equality, and only substitutes an autonomy based largely on sexual empowerment.

Down with Love’s “Gurley” feminism is strikingly similar to the “Girlie” feminism discussed by numerous U.S. critics of post-feminism and outlined by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards in their book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. When speaking of post-feminism, my definition aligns with what one participant in an online forum describes as “Retro-grade Post-feminism” (Postfeminism). Or as Ann Braithwaite points out in an article in Feminist Theory:

"‘postfeminist’ is…used to refer… [to] a renewed focus on seemingly traditional definitions of ‘femininity’ and their emphases on the individual lifestyle choices and personal pleasures provided by consumer culture and adopted predominantly by young women today" (338).

Post-feminism suggests that women have reached and surpassed feminism’s goals, no longer demanding the necessity of political struggle, and that activism and identity are now focused on more individualized, personal areas of feminine experience. This focus frequently hones in on sexual pleasure. To some degree, this concentration on sexuality is due to the contradictory and repressive forces that arose in 1980s conservative United States and the subsequent feminist backlash they entailed, as well as a turning away from media-constructed images of  70s feminism — man-hating, strident, unfashionable, and lesbian.  Braithwaite elaborates,

“The emphasis in this self-identified ‘fun’ feminism is on exploring lifestyle choices and personal pleasures of women rather than on outlining agendas for more direct and recognizable kinds of social activism” (338).

Bust magazine editor Debbie Stoller gives voice to this movement:

“In the 90’s, the women of the New Girl Order are ready to go out and get what’s cumming to us. Our mission is to seek out pleasure wherever we can find it. In other words, if it feels good, screw it. Vibrators in hand, we’re ready to fight the good fight” (Henry 109-110).

Astrid Henry has described some of this turn away from previous feminist touchstones as a generational shift, for contemporary feminists tend to define themselves against their feminist foremothers of the 1st and 2nd waves (16-51). Merri Lisa Johnson illustrates this split between older and newer versions of feminist thought:

“Feminism — often addressed by young women as a strict teacher who just needs to get laid — is a name we want to reclaim for the intersection of smart and sexy within each of us” (4).

Johnson’s view of feminism reflects the series of contradictions that women are compelled to negotiate in a cultural landscape deeply intertwined with popular culture — this new feminism can be both smart and sexy. Lee Damsky evokes this world in her introduction to the third-wave anthology Sex and Single Girls:

"Women in my generation were born in the ‘60s and ‘70s with the sexual revolution and the feminist movement, but we grew up with a mix of socio-sexual contradictions: the conservative backlash and the AIDS epidemic…We got divorced parents and “family values,” homophobia and lesbian chic, 'Just Say No' and 'Ten Ways to Drive Him Wild'" (xii-xiii).

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